5 Tips for Tent Camping with Little Kids

Tent camping with kids can be so fun and also so hard. Especially with kids under 5. The simplest things, like setting up your tent and other parts of camp, preparing food and getting reasonably clean, are made lightyears harder. It all gets easier with practice, I promise. The more you go, the more you figure out what items you really need and what to leave home. What foods are easiest to prepare, and also to clean up after.

While it can be so hard sometimes, some of my very favorite memories are on camping and backpacking trips. To me, all the hard parts are a simple price to pay for the memories, the views, the hours and hours outside, the sunsets, and the picnics. I hope these simple tips for tent camping with little kids help you make incredible memories too.

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young family in a smiling in the door of a backpacking tent

Tips for Tent Camping with Little Kids

Set the tent up at home first

Hear me out. There are 2 reasons here:

  1. If you haven’t set up your tent before (or its been quite a while), it’s a whole lot easier to have a go at home where there is less stress. Even one time practicing goes a long way while the kids are contained!
  2. Even if you’re quite comfortable setting up your tent, if your little kids haven’t slept in there in a while, set it up at home and let them play in there for a day or two. Otherwise, let me paint a picture of what may happen. It’s getting close to bedtime. You do your whole bedtime routine, climb into the tent together and hope the kids fall asleep. But now they are in this entirely new, and very fun might I add, environment and they just want to play for a lot longer than expected while you’re ready to pass out.

If you can let your kids experience some of that novelty at home, then when it’s time to sleep, it’ll go quite a bit faster. That’s the hope anyway.

Have a plan for keeping kids close during tent set up

If you have little kids, especially those that tend to wander, you may want to come with a plan to keep them close by while you set up camp. Here are some ideas that work for us:

  • Bring a toy or two (construction vehicles, magnet tiles, characters, etc.) to hold their attention. Want more toy suggestions? I’ve put together 19 of our favorite travel toys for toddlers in this blog post.
  • Invite them to help – even little toddlers like to be included sometimes! They can hold things for you, help with clips, etc. There are lots of little ways they can feel like they are contributing.
  • Let them play in the car. Closing the car doors but free of car seats can keep them really contained and my kids love to climb around in there.
  • Put out snacks or special treats while you set up
  • Try a bubble machine like this one. Bubbles make an excellent back up plan.
mom and daughter in a hot spring with camper van in the background at sunset

Camping near water is >>>

Camping near water is just better. Water play goes a long way and I find I get more time to sit down and chill a bit when water is involved. A lake, a (slow moving) river, a stream, the beach. Can’t recommend this one enough.

Have appropriate sleep expectations

Instead of ‘lowering’ your expectations, which sounds like a bummer, lets shift perspective to having developmentally appropriate expectations, which sounds health and great. Kids have a strong drive to play, a strong drive to explore new things, big curiosity, and as a parent I want to support all those things. Sometimes those drives overpower the drive to sleep.

When we camp, I know that we usually all go to bed at the same time and it’s later than at home. When I expect this and view it as normal, it is still hard sometimes, but not nearly as painful as if I expect a normal-for-home bedtime.

I also know my kids sometimes need more help falling asleep. I need to lay with them longer, or stay with them through the night. They need more books read first. Again, still hard sometimes, but *appropriate* expectations go a long way.

Mother feeding toddler a dehydrated backpacking meal at Tongariro National Park

Cooking tips for tent camping with kids

Choose meals that are not only easy to make, but also easy to clean up after. I’ve made the mistake – more times than I’d like to admit – of making annoyingly messy meals. Remember, unless you heat up water yourself, you won’t have warm water for washing. So anything fatty, like ground beef/mince is on my too annoying list.

Just like with set up, have a plan for keeping kids engaged. Pulling out the same tactics as before is useful. Little kids can help move ingredients around, stir, cut with a kid-friendly knife, etc.

Honing the camp kitchen over time makes life so much easier. I have forgotten a can opener or a cutting board many times. Worried you’ll forget something? Grab my free Camping with Kids Packing List so you don’t miss anything!

Did you grow up tent camping with your family? I grew up going once a year for a week near Santa Barbara on the California coast and it is one of those things I remember most fondly from my childhood. It’s an honor to help make those kinds of memories for my kids – and I’m excited you’re doing the same! Let me know what other questions you have about tent camping with kids in the comments.

Happy exploring 😉

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